In downtown Seattle’s commercial core, retail workers have doubled as first responders, doormen have been deployed to keep unwelcome visitors out and some buildings are still sitting empty as employers worry about the safety of workers and customers.
Amazon is the latest company to react.
It is temporarily moving workers from its space in the building at Third Avenue and Pine Street that until 2019 held the downtown Macy’s store, a spokesperson for the company said Friday. The office’s 1,800 employees have been working remotely during the pandemic; rather than returning to the desks they left over two years ago, workers will move to other locations in South Lake Union. Remote work is still an option for Amazon employees.
“Given recent incidents near 3rd and Pine, we’re providing employees currently at that location with alternative office space elsewhere,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We are hopeful that conditions will improve and that we will be able to bring employees back to this location when it is safe to do so.”
Amazon moved into the 312,000-square-foot location in 2017, taking over the top six floors of the old Macy’s building. The office at 300 Pine St. is about a half-mile from the company’s headquarters on Seventh Avenue.
Since Feb. 21, there have been at least three shootings, two stabbings and one carjacking in the area, according to the Seattle Police Department.
“This is a challenging time for employers and employees,” said Rachel Smith, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which represents 2,500 businesses. “I know our employers are trying to do everything they can.”
Olga Sagan, owner of Piroshky Piroshky, decided in February to close the bakery’s Third and Pike Street location, citing high crime in the area and fears about employee and customer safety.
Addressing safety concerns is a “precondition” for many employers considering bringing workers back to the office, said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.
In a survey of 200 employers last December, 70% said they believed they would bring workers back to the office for the majority of the week — but the most important condition holding them to that decision was action to address homelessness and public safety, he said.
Third and Pine is a “lobby” for Seattle, Scholes said, and with more than 50,000 people moving through it on the bus in the pre-pandemic days, safety concerns there will affect other businesses around the city.
“What happens on Third is really critical to the rest of downtown’s ability to bring more office workers back,” he said. “It’s the worst-kept secret in Seattle, and it’s been that way for quite some time.”
Other companies are choosing to stay. Smith, from the Chamber of Commerce, said businesses are concerned about gun violence, organized retail theft, drug activity and safe access to transit stations, but hasn’t heard of any members that plan to follow Amazon’s lead and leave the area.
Starbucks, which has a store a block away on Fourth Avenue and Pine Street, said it plans to continue operating as usual. Timber company Weyerhaeuser initially delayed plans to return to its Pioneer Square headquarters over safety concerns, but reversed course in February and announced the office would reopen in April.
At Mario’s, a clothing store on Sixth Avenue, president Mario Bisio says he is worried about violence near the store but is also committed to staying in the area.
“We have been in Seattle for 40 years. We believe in the city. We’re optimistic that they’ll turn around. But have we really seen it downtown? Not yet,” Bisio said.
There’s a doorman at the entrance of the store, both to welcome customers and to keep people out as needed, Bisio said. Employees feel comfortable during the day but like having an escort to their car or their home when leaving a shift.
Seeing Amazon leave the area, if only temporarily, is demoralizing, Bisio said.
“It sends a very negative message to our clients and to the community on the state of affairs of downtown Seattle,” he said. “We pray that there will be a time in the future that people can bring their family downtown in the evening, feel safe to shop, walk the streets and go to restaurants. That is not the case today.”
A self-described eternal optimist, Bisio says Mario’s wants to “fight for the resilience of Seattle.”
Businesses are sure to feel the economic impact of Amazon moving its workers away from Third and Pine, said Steve Burke, the western regional manager for the Washington Small Business Development Center.
But, having passed the two-year mark from when Amazon and other employers first sent employees to work from home, he said, that impact likely won’t be anything new.
Scholes, of the Downtown Seattle Association, said many businesses have been waiting for office workers to return. Without that foot traffic, he expects to see fewer coffee shops, flower shops and other small businesses, he said. And with that, fewer jobs.